Life, the Universe, and Everything

I didn’t see The Tree of Life in theaters. Reviews of the film were mixed enough,
and my moviegoing is limited enough, that it didn’t make the cut during its release. I was curious about it, however, and I got it on DVD from Netflix last month.

Between critics and acquaintances, I’d heard the film described as everything from magnificent to pretentious to nauseating. I didn’t find it nauseating. Pretentious? Yeah, I wouldn’t quibble with that, yet I also thought that it was magnificent. I’m not sure that a spoiler warning really applies, but if you know absolutely nothing about The Tree of Life and don’t want to, either, stop now and consider my recommendation; otherwise, continue after the pic.

'Tree of Life' movie poster

In The Tree of Life writer/director Terrence Malick examines the meaning of existence in microcosm and in almost absurd macrocosm. Scenes in the life of the O’Brien family in mid-20th-century Texas, and part of one day in the present life of Jack O’Brien, are intercut with sequences that show the birth of the universe, the development of life on Earth, and the inevitable fate of the solar system as the sun eventually flames out. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are cast as Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien, parents to three boys, with Sean Penn playing son Jack as an adult.

Pitt is very good as Mr. O’Brien; I think it’s the first performance of his that I’ve responded to as more than fine. The fact that Chastain is still rather an unknown quantity, finally having her breakout year with a slew of projects released on top of one another, probably works in the film’s favor — although since Pitt’s celebrity doesn’t overshadow his own role, to his and Malick’s credit, I suppose a more recognizable face as Mrs. O’Brien wouldn’t have been a problem either. (Which is funny to me as I write it, because Chastain has a very recognizable face: She looks from certain angles like Julia Roberts and almost all the time like her The Help costar Bryce Dallas Howard.)

Given that the scenes with Penn felt out of place to me — and that’s saying something
in an otherwise small-scale domestic drama that involves a digression to dinosaurs — I don’t know that my disfavor for them is so much his fault as Malick’s. Those scenes are ostensibly the lynchpin of the entire movie, since Jack is the character we follow from the ’50s/’60s-set scenes into today and a sort of afterlife, but they almost felt intrusive. While Jack appears in that afterlife as Penn, by the way, Hunter McCracken is an absolute natural on screen as Young Jack.

Whether the afterlife segment is actually real within the context of the film on some metaphysical level — upon Jack’s death or a Rapture of sorts or everyone’s death at the End of Time — I’m not sure. I don’t know that there is an answer or that it matters, but I did find a few writeups during a quick post-viewing poke around the Interwebs that matter-of-factly stated things that I didn’t get out of the film. One was that Jack actually experienced the afterlife as a kind of waking dream during the present-day scenes, whereas I saw it as a narrative flashforward to the end that potentially awaits us. Another was that we see life as we know it not only born but extinguished in the movie — perhaps on the very day that we see adult Jack wrestling with his past — and I even read a comparison of The Tree of Life’s apocalyptic vision to that of Melancholia, something that if present I missed.

I can’t help but wonder how the film might fare in an Oscar race that didn’t include
the fantasias Hugo and The Artist as deserved front-runners, but instead pit The Tree of Life in all its grandiosity against a solid examination of modern life like The Descendants. Malick has made a movie that once would’ve been the very model of a Best Picture honoree. Last year ultimate winner The King’s Speech and its worthier competition The Social Network might well have both fallen in The Tree of Life’s wake if Academy voters were willing to set aside more than 2½ hours to watch it without prejudice.

Even though the visual effects surely played more spectacularly on the big screen,
and despite my general preference for seeing movies with a crowd, I suspect that the intimate nature of the film came across better at home with headphones on and lights off. I was very moved by the snippets of dialogue, or really of internal monologue, that recur unrelated in a specific sense to the images unfolding at the same time; Chastain’s dreamlike whispers in my ear were particularly moving, which I can’t help sounding more untoward than I mean it.

The Tree of Life is a quietly epic, certainly ambitious, truly beautiful film, not for everyone but of course, famously, nothing really is except for birth and death. I’d love
to hear whether you saw or not and if so what you thought.

Related: Flow Rider Swan Dive Paris Review


  1. I completely agree and I loved this movie. I watched it alone (no way I could convince El Husbandando to sit through it - it's like when I try to get him to listen to an Ani DiFranco song: he makes an overly serious face and keeps saying stuff like "It's as though Ani and I are soul mates... you sing it, Sister Ani" which irritates and amuses me) and I am glad I did. I generally don't like how people behave when at the movie theater (I especially hate the sound of undeserved laughter - hate it, I tell you!) and the idea of sitting with a bunch of strangers to see what I think is a very intimate movie would have ruined it for me... but I also don't like touching public doorhandles, so it's probably just me. And Greasy Pay Phones - gah, is there anything worse? Back on Track: Sean Penn was the one thing that didn't really grab me but I adored the unbelievably lovely Jessica Chastain. What a beautiful woman she is and played in the film. The Little Boys were all naturals and you forget that this isn't actually a set of tapes from someone's real life you're watching. The scene where the dad is gone and the boys actually get to play with their mom is one of my favorites. I like to think, need to think, that something happens at the End of Time - that it all mattered - and in that way, I found this movie to be a comfort.

    I haven't seen Melancholia and I really want to. I can't seem to find it anywhere, it's odd. It was available On Demand for, like, a month and now it has vanished... have you seen it? I watched Another Earth instead and boy, what a waste of a cool idea that was.


  2. No, I didn't get to see Melancholia in theaters or with On Demand. The DVD will be out in a couple of weeks.

    "It's as though Ani and I are soul mates... you sing it, Sister Ani"

    Ha! I've never gotten into Ani DiFranco to the extent that my Oberlin background and World Café listening might suggest. I know people who love her. I also know people who think that if she married James Franco they would be the most insufferably hipster couple on the face of the Earth, and not just because they'd go by James and Ani DiFranco-Franco.

    Greasy Pay Phones is actually one of my rejected band names, but we did consider Touching Public Doorhandles for the name of our first live album.

    Sean Penn was the one thing that didn't really grab me but I adored the unbelievably lovely Jessica Chastain. What a beautiful woman she is and played in the film.

    Yeah, I really thought that she was fantastic. I still haven't seen The Help but not long after I watched The Tree of Life I saw The Debt; she played yet another very different character (young Israeli secret agent undercover in 1960s Germany who becomes Helen Mirren) very well. I know that they were unusual roles, but I could've seen Oscar nominations for her in The Tree of Life and for Brad Pitt as well; he was all right in Moneyball but nowhere near as fascinatingly deep to me, which I credit to Terrence Malick as much as Pitt.

    The Little Boys were all naturals and you forget that this isn't actually a set of tapes from someone's real life you're watching.


  3. ...they'd go by James and Ani DiFranco-Franco.

    Ha! I have been laying this on people and the reaction I keep getting is chuckles followed by "Why do you keep randomly saying that?"